NaKorn Urban Thai, Aroi Mak Mak

NaKorn Urban Thai

Greater Chicago boasts a large number of Thai restaurants. There are two that have been my absolute favorite: JJ Thai Street Food at 1715 W. Chicago Avenue in West Town for authentic Thai street food and Herb at 5424 N. Broadway Street in Edgewater for refined Thai with 100% authenticity. After most recent visits to NaKorn Urban Thai at 1622 Orrington Avenue in downtown Evanston, it has officially become my third go-to Thai restaurant.

NaKorn Negroni

NaKorn Negroni

While passing through Evanston and a quick search to see what offerings were on the menu at NaKorn, there was a draw to the complete absence of a lot of ubiquitous Thai dishes (e.g., pad thai, pad see ew, curries, Bangkok chicken, bamee noodles, and the like). Recognizing that my original list of two favorite restaurants didn’t serve those staples and I had fallen in love with their dishes, I imagined that NaKorn was a winner.

Not a large restaurant, but not small either, it’s airy and spacious for those who like to enjoy their meals with dinner guests or alone without having neighboring diners practically sitting on top of you. For my first visit, I sat outside to enjoy the summer weather and to imbibe a negroni while figuring out what I wanted for dinner. And oh was the negroni a hit without being heavy-handed: just perfect.

Taro Chicken

Taro Chicken

I opted for a prix fixe flight of three courses. The first was taro chicken. Marinated in lemongrass-infused coconut milk and fried lightly before coated in a chili-peanut gastrique, this appetizer popped with flavor. As much as I joke about hating peanuts, the flavor was faint yet not to a point of being undetectable, but enough to let the coconut and taro take center stage on the palate. Simply outstanding.

Pan Roasted White Fish Fillet

Pan Roasted Whitefish Fillet

The second flight was pan roasted whitefish fillet with a sweet pepper chutney and chili tamarind reduction. The whitefish was not only flaky but it was also tender, clearly prepared to perfection. Rather than having this with an air of pomp and circumstances, this dish is best eaten mixed together. Having the fennel, cucumber, radish, whitefish, chutney, and tamarind reduction is a symphony.

Sazerac

Sazerac

For my second cocktail, I was in a bit of a New Orleans mood, so I ordered a sazerac. My restaurant adviser and I laugh about how at one of Chicago’s most touted restaurants, I left a sazerac at the bar intentionally because it was heavy on the alcohol and tasteless simultaneously. That was not the case with the sazerac at NaKorn. This one was smooth, in the same manner that they mix them in New Orleans.

The finale was a plate of mango and sticky rice. While you can never go wrong with mango and stick rice, this dish fueled an addiction that made me catch myself when I was tempted to order another plate of it. The sticky rice had been prepared to order, evident in it not being gummy. And to make the dessert that more appetizing, there was a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream served with it. Yes, that did add a twist while kicking an old favorite up several notches without compromising any of the love in all of the bites.

Mango Sticky Rice

Mango and Sticky Rice

Giving myself time before a return visit, I included my restaurant adviser for the second jaunt.  We opted for a few dishes without going overboard because she had made a suggestion for another visit so we could sample from the upcoming autumn menu. Really paying attention to the menu and also having brief conversation with one of the managers, it became apparent that the dishes were of the variety enjoyed at home in Thailand proper. That explained why there wasn’t even basil chicken available for ordering.

North Shore Punch

North Shore Punch

Shake and Shimmy

Shake and Shimmy

To keep the summer theme going, my adviser ordered a North Shore Punch. I ordered a Shake and Shimmy. The North Shore Punch looked artsy, a visual parfait of vodka, lemonade, and Thai chili-honey syrup. The Shake and Shimmy was a refreshing cocktail of rose hip, Brut Rosé, cranberry, and soda. And in our Garden of Eden, we had watermelon bites topped with crispy shallots. I never would have thought the combination of watermelon and shallots would be so divine. When the manager described this as a summer dish that her grandmother prepared when she was in Bangkok, I understood why this was a favorite of hers.

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

Watermelon with Crispy Shallots

The next shared dish was vegetarian scallops. Eryngii king mushroom had been prepared so that it had the consistency of tender scallops and had I not glance at the menu a second time, I never would have known the difference. Served with a house made chili jam and topped with frisée and edible flowers, this was another flight that my adviser and I agreed should be eaten slowly so to experience the kick from the chili jam appearing and disappearing on the tongue. Plus, the whole concept of mushroom passing for scallops, albeit not as a trick, is simply fantastic and creative.

Vegetarian Scallop

Vegetarian Scallops

The third landing was a plate of coriander crispy shredded beef brisket. Described as having been shredded by hand, it was apparent there was a lot of preparation involved in the the dish, but what made it a case study in “Best Beef Brisket Ever” was the right amount of herbs and spices used without overpowering the taste buds. Served atop sticky rice, I will now be very critical of any brisket I have in the future because the culinary bar in preparing succulent brisket has been raised thanks to NaKorn.

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Coriander Crispy Shredded Beef Brisket

Moving into the main flights, the first entrée was a plate of steamed baby lobster tail with kohlrabi, micro greens, and a Thai chili broth served with coconut rice. With both adviser and me being seafood fanatics, every morsel from the lobster dragged through the chili broth made for a culinary delight. This was the first time I have had lobster at a Thai restaurant and this recipe has become quite possibly the one I will hanker for when lobster is on the menu. Plating was visually stunning. However, there was a point when we resorted to using fingers for extracting the plump meat from the shell and dispensing of using forks except for when eating the rice.

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

Steamed Baby Lobster Tail

The second entrée was a plate of jumbo lump blue crab served with Thai rice noodles and a spicy turmeric-coconut curry soup poured on the side. Three words come to mind again: Garden of Eden. The crab was fresh and I can always count on my adviser to speak to the quality of crab, of which she vouched could be the equivalent of truth serum. Certainly the aroma was inviting just from the wafting while arriving at the table. The soup had a flavor akin to what one finds in kow soy. The lump crab made it one of NaKorn’s most recommended dishes.

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

Jumbo Lump Blue Crab

The finale was a take on a favorite that we have had at one of the Thai restaurants I mentioned earlier. There was a mix of jackfruit, mango, and water chestnuts. This is usually served in coconut milk with a little bit of sugar, but instead it was served with a scoop of panna cotta. Thailand meets Italy. Aroi. Delizioso. Outstanding. For an absolute scrumptious dinner, this wrap-up left us with a want for a quicker return than we scheduled.

Panna Cotta with Fruit

Panna Cotta with Fruit

NaKorn retains authenticity in the Thai dishes. The plating may look like something other than Thai, but the palate will say otherwise. No, they don’t prepare pad thai, panang, tom yum, or dishes in sweet gravies loaded with mushrooms, onions, carrots, and bell peppers. They do expose patrons to dining that is customary to Thailand proper while adding creativity to presentation without diminishing the dishes to middle of the road. In a long list of Thai restaurants that have cookie-cutter output from the kitchen, it’s refreshing finding NaKorn moving out ahead with menu items that have those who don’t speak Thai saying, “Aroi mak mak.”

NaKorn Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sable Saves the Evening

A few weekends ago my adventurous sister and I decided that we wanted to try another seafood restaurant. One seafood restaurant just north of downtown had been spoken of highly in reviews, so we opted to see if it was worthy of the high praise. Upon entry, it was clear that the restaurant was a great place to go for having drinks. However, the sazerac that I had left me wondering if I was missing something. And after a forced meal of dishes that looked appetizing, but weren’t, my sister and I were on the hunt for a Plan B. She had mentioned a neighbouring restaurant not far from the seafood restaurant, so we were off to overcompensate for the hunger pains that were overtaking us.

Sable

Click to see larger photos in Flickr album

 

We went to Sable at 505 N. State Street in Hotel Palomar. Crowded at the bar with a large seating area for those who want to have a dining experience, Sable seemed like it would be an ideal Plan B. It was. We took a seat in the dining area without having to wait and the server was over to the table to explain the menu, make note of some specials, and offer suggestions. With it being cold outside, my sister started with an Easy Livin’ drink — her way of projecting herself onto a sunny beach. I had an alcoholic beverage that was more like a hot toddy with a nice amount of brandy, a hint of chocolate, some bitters, and bliss. I really don’t know exactly what was in the concoction, but I will say that it was a thousand miles better than the sazerac I’d had earlier that I swear was water with a splash of whiskey and absinthe.

Understanding that we had arrived late, we settled on two items that we knew would do well to ease the growling in our bellies and replace our scowls with smiles. There were creamed corn brulee and mussels. Creamed corn is an appetizing dish all on its own. Having a brulee crust atop of it did not detract from the dish. Actually, this was one item that I have been ranting and raving about since I went to Sable. The other was a huge bowl of mussels in a white wine sauce with garlic and garlic toast on the side. Hello, mussels. Good bye, Dracula. The last time we recalled having mussels as delicious as the ones we had at Sable was when we had gone to Autre Monde in Berwyn, Illinois. Those little morsels were greeted with insatiable appetites and gnashing teeth. Not to let any of the sauce go to waste, we soaked the toast in the sauce and devoured it to complete satisfaction.

 

For our finale, we ordered sorbet — blood orange and blackberry basil. These two scoops were what dreams of made of. Accompanied with berries and dainty cookie crisps, I read my sister’s mind when she was saying to herself, “This is where we should have come from the start.” Sable was an excellent contingency plan.

It may be the weekends or it may be every evening, but the bar section of Sable fills up quickly with a motley crew of lively patrons. Most restaurants in Chicago accept reservations and Sable may be a participating restaurant that does the same. Considering how good the food is for a hotel restaurant, I understand the crowd. What we had, albeit not a lot for our visit, was fine dining without fine dining prices. Those who are looking for a great restaurant with perfect drinks and outstanding food, make Sable your first choice if you are in the River North and Near North area of downtown. You will not be disappointed.

Sable Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

In Chicago’s Second Tallest Building — Rebar

From the Terrace at Trump Tower

Lagoon

Lagoon

Chicago is my favourite city in North America — in the USA — second to Toronto, Ontario. Chicago is a bastion of culture, theatre, arts, restaurants, food, architecture, cafés, music, corrupt politicians, bizarre temperatures, and constant news about shooting gallery activities in small sections of the city. Well, the latter three do not make for splendid press. However, the abundance of food and great places where you can get your fill of satisfaction are main attractions that have kept me in this fair city for nineteen years. When I had moved to Chicago from New York City, I did not initially find the place fast enough, hip enough, or current enough. In some regions of the city, people had Jheri curls. Drivers stopped on green lights and went when the lights turned red — simply backwards. Pedestrians meandered as if they had been converted into zombies, of which I discovered were tourists in total awe of the city’s splendor. Fast forward to the present and Chicago has quickly risen to New York City standards as a hub of cultural activities. Downtown has expanded and seems to be continuing to grow by leaps and bounds. Nightlife is available until the wee hours of the morning and that also means being able to go to any restaurant at any time of night rather than rambling through an empty refrigerator for a late night snack. And with the reverse migration of those who had fled to the suburbs years ago, Chicago proper has indeed become a centre for a lot of entertainment despite eight month of winter.

Shrimp Tempura

Shrimp Tempura

With the growth spurt of Chicago taking off, the skyline is seeing the addition of more skyscrapers. One such skyscraper that has resulted in Chicago boasting three of the tallest buildings in North America is Trump Tower. Walking distance from Michigan Avenue and State Street, this Tower of Babel reaches high towards the blue, grey steel reflecting more blue which gives the building an ethereal look. To me, the things that make Trump Tower so appealing are the restaurants — Rebar and The Terrace. Several friends and I usually gather for a bit of communion after work at any local haunt. Having been to Rebar and loving it, we wanted to return to Trump Tower to go to the sixteenth floor to sample the bill of fare at The Terrace. The vista from The Terrace is magnificent with so much old architecture staring back at you while you ponder menu items that make you gasp. We all had drinks, which were the most reasonably priced items on the menu. The appetizers were Wow! and the entrées were on the up of triple digits in price. One friend had a glass of red wine because her husband told her to behave. Another had a beer since she is more of a connoisseur of ales. One other friend had water so that he would not teeter about on the bus ride home. A fourth had a mixed drink called a lagoon because she is experimental with mixed drinks. I had a Glenlivit scotch to maintain my snobbery. While all of the drinks are pretty much commonplace, the lagoon was a sight to behold. This green drink contained light rum, dark rum, grenadine, pineapple juice, some other flavoured liquor, and a sniffer full of smiles in it. We were all quite happy. We got to say that we went to The Terrace and had drinks.

Flight of Mojitos

Flight of Mojitos

Electric Lemonade

Electric Lemonade

Because we are not of the ilk that can compete with the average college jock and sorority girl in binge drinking, and making complete fools of ourselves is way beneath our station, we wanted some food so that we would not stagger about downtown like bumbling pratts. So it was down to the second floor we went to Rebar. Ah, happiness abounded as we ordered more drinks and our share of Japanese food. I can imagine some chef doing his thing with rice, eel, avocado, wasabi sauce, ginger, and his imagination. For drinks, we had more wine, an electric lemonade, beer, a flight of mojitos, and water. Okay, so the electric lemonade was not a concoction from a carton with garnish and a lemon wedge. It was a bit reminiscent of a cross between a mojito and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, ever so refreshing, oh so delightful, and oh so much of it. The winner was the flight of mojitos — cucumber, blackberry, vanilla, and strawberry basil.

The bartender must be an oracle when it comes to making drinks because he or she did not prepare any of the mixed drinks such that the first skosh nipped at the back of the jaw. The alcohol was hidden well; that is until you stood to walk. With the complementary olives and spiced nuts, we had edamame, tempura shrimp, a garden roll with tempura asparagus, crunchy shrimp roll, and California roll. I am sure that if any of the others were like me when they got home, they went to bed promptly and slept like they had been anesthetized. I dreamed that teddy bears at their picnics cursed my name because I had so much fun at Trump Tower — but it was mostly because I was laughing at their empty picnic baskets.

Crunchy Shrimp

Crunchy Shrimp

Donald Trump may be a bit of a laughable individual, but good on him for Trump Tower — and his public quibbling with the mayor about the TRUMP sign being on display well above eye level. When I am in my chi-chi mood and want to perpetrate like I am more than just a statistician, I will ride the lift to the sixteenth floor and sit outside watching the beauty of downtown while sipping a scotch — keeping in mind that a scotch will no doubt be all I order. But when I want something of substance and within my budget, I shall retreat to Rebar and work my chopsticks on some sushi while delighting myself on some liquid love from the bar. Ambience, great service, and fantastic food, what more could one want? The answer would be a ridiculous wealth of money so that you could at least fake once like I have enough to pay for a $200 entrée at The Terrace. Okay, so I’ve paid more at a few restaurants and not whined.

Go to New York City if you want to see a play, have a truly good brunch, or live in what can feel like a prison cell with a lease price of no less than $2000. Go to Los Angeles if you want to rehearse how to be a plastic actor or actress. But come to Chicago if you want great real estate, arts, entertainment, and fine cuisine — brought to us thanks to the maneuvering of corrupt politicians. And if you are a manager and have to fire an employee — You’re fired! — you can make yourself feel good afterwards by going to Rebar and having some sushi, a lagoon, and wrapping up with a goblet of electric lemonade. Then you will know all the good things that make Chicago so wonderful.

Garden Roll

Garden Roll

Rebar on Urbanspoon

So Good, Complete Naansense

Naansense

What do you get when you work at a company that acknowledges President’s Day and gives you the day off for a holiday? Well, you get a diet version of a blizzard that threatens to mess up your appetite and your want for going outside to venture to any restaurant for culinary options. To those of you who dare come to Chicago during the winter, welcome to Chiberia. I had the day off and wanted to stuff my jaws, which is not unusual. The really tragic thing is I have a stove at home and the most I do as it involves the stove is glance at it briefly when I enter my condo. Thank God for a disposable income and living in a city like Chicago where you deserve to have a Looney Tunes anvil fall from the sky and conk you on the head if you complain about not having anywhere to go for dining excursions.

Rice Plate with Vindaloo Chicken and Cucumbers

Rice Plate with Vindaloo Chicken and Cucumbers

I had heard about a new restaurant in Near North Loop named Naansense — talk about a swell play on words — at 171 N. Wells Street that has an Indian influence. Once I had arrived, I had recalled its predecessor, Curried, a restaurant that I had blogged a year or so ago. Seeing that it is very much like a small cafe, I wouldn’t be surprised that it packs out quickly during lunch hours. Fortunately, most people were off for President’s Day and the snow was probably an inhibitor that left me with a pick of seats and an appetite that needed to be sated.

Mango Lassi

Mango Lassi

There was that Chipotle method for ordering that has become a staple in most restaurants that are opening their doors for business. Pick your platter, get your toppings, add your sides, pay, and eat. I had decided that I would have a rice bowl for this visit. It all looked worthy of my immediate visit and a possible return visit or two in the future. I had the chicken with vindaloo sauce. Now, my lips curled up in a smile when I heard vindaloo because I love spicy food like Sherlock Holmes loves to solve mysteries. There was a balance to the spiciness of the vindaloo sauce by way of the yogurt sauce I had added to the rice. Where things got to be closer to wholesome as opposed to Indian was with the cucumbers and chickpea noodles I got as sides. With a cup of mango lassi in hand, I grabbed a table and handled the lunch to completion.

Rice Plate with Naan and Mango Lassi

Rice Plate with Naan and Mango Lassi

I am usually accustomed to gobbling some chana bhatura, bhindi masala with poori, baigan bharta with naan, or daal palak with rice. There is an Indian influence to the offerings at Naansense that I think would be an excellent way for those with milder palates to ease into Indian spices before going all out with a plate of shrimp vindaloo. Not only is the food tasty, and I say this after only having a rice bowl, but the service from behind the counter is top. For a small restaurant that has recently opened, they weren’t fumbling around and when you have staff make recommendations, restaurants like that are well worth return visits. Sitting at home wondering what to eat will be a naan-issue because I’ll probably show up at Naansense to satisfy my craving — unless we are in the midst of a Chiberian blizzaster. I see some naanwiches, roti rolls, and salad bowls in my crystal ball. Hint, hint.

Naansense on Urbanspoon

Going South, Cafe Trinidad

Cafe  Trinidad

With the constant drop in temperatures and snow piling up outside, I have been good about not rattling off the statement, “I will be glad when summer arrives.” Honestly, summer in Chicago on Lake Michigan is like having a gigantic magnifying glass over the city and all pedestrians are like ants. The temperatures go from one extreme to the next. And people in Chicago are resilient. Unless there is a certain threat of bad weather shutting the city down, life goes on. Well, let’s be real. When was the last time your appetite said, “I think I shall wait until you finish your brooding about cold temperatures and not having anything to eat”? I can’t speak for anyone else, but my appetite has a life of its own and I obey when it starts whining.

Homemade Ginger Beer

Homemade Ginger Beer

To force myself into a mindset of being in a place where there is warmth, I was on the hunt for some Caribbean food. Much to my surprise, I found a Trini restaurant on Chicago’s South Side. After moving from the South Side to flee painful memories, I had not made trips back except for church — and I drive like a bat out of hell to get back to the North Side immediately afterwards — and to Hyde Park. But I gave Cafe Trinidad at 700 E. 47th Street in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighbourhood some precedence. So, I grabbed my camera for some action journaling and still shots, and it was off to the subway to connect to an “L” so that I could continue south of 35th Street.

Curry Chicken, Rice and Beans, Plantains, Cabbage

Curry Chicken, Rice and Beans, Plantains, Cabbage

With an interior that looks much like a lot of catfish shacks and chicken shanties on the South Side and West Side, you get that look at Cafe Trinidad. There are a few tables and for those who are big on decor, the bright colours adds warmth during days like what we were having — with 3 to 5 inches of snow accumulating outside. What Cafe Trinidad has in spades is GOOD FOOD. I ordered a plate of curry chicken, rice and beans, cabbage, and plantains. The chicken was not only spicy but it was also flavourful and tender enough to cut with a plastic fork. Yes, you heard me correctly. At some Caribbean restaurants that I have not bothered to put on Chicago Alphabet Soup, the plantains were fried to a horrible crisp or boiled to a questionable texture. The plantains I had at Cafe Trinidad were sweet without sweetener enhancers and just right. And to top it all off, I had some homemade ginger beer. The last time I had homemade ginger beer that was worth writing home about was when I had gone to a Ghanaian restaurant in Washington, DC.

Although you can have a seat at Cafe Trinidad, there is no server to come to your table and take your order and run it to the kitchen. You review the menu at the table or at the till where you place your order. Being able to see the kitchen was a plus for me because I knew there was some serious authenticity to the food. Certainly when my food came to the table with some kick to it, I knew that there was someone from Trinidad in the kitchen working magic. Having only tried the curry chicken dish, I noted that there are wraps and other dishes on the menu. I guess I will have to brave the snow a few more times so that I can indulge some more Trini delights. Seriously, my stomach is already telling me to set aside some dates in the upcoming months. There is some roti on the menu that needs to know that I appreciate it.

Cafe Trinidad on Urbanspoon

More Angry Pasta at Vapiano

Ginger Ale

Ginger Ale

Note: The Lincoln Park location at 2577 N. Clark Street closed in July, 2014. There is a new location in The Loop at 44 S. Wabash Avenue.

My appetite alarm had gone off an hour before it was time for the close of my day at work. Suffice it to say, that is problematic in ways that I can’t describe. All of my thoughts become scrambled and I get edgy to the point of being irritable. I keep saying to myself that I have to do something about my constant appetite, but that may require therapy. And I don’t have money to give to a therapist when I prefer forking it over to a restaurant. Needless to say, I wanted something with a kick to it because the weather outside was biting. To my wondering surprise, I had received a text message from a friend who had mentioned a restaurant in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood, at 2577 N. Clark Street called Vapiano. I recalled walking by the restaurant countless times and thinking, Oh, that looks like a cool lounge. Well, I had to put my thoughts of chi-chi ambience aside and do something about my growling belly. So, I was on the #22 Clark Street bus heading to Vapiano to show some love — or a display of usual hunger.

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Strawberry Spinach Salad

Not even through the door good, the hostess greeted me with a warm welcome. With the wave of her arm, I had my pick of seats. I had arrived before the crowd and it was fantastic being able to choose a seat without any children of the corn and negligent parents in sight. Having a clear view of the open kitchen, my food alarm was dictating that I really indulge. Indulged I did. It was off to the bar for a ginger ale — yes, a non-alcoholic drink since this was a “school night.” Then I was off to the salad bar for what I thought would be a side salad. I ordered a spinach and strawberry salad that was topped with goat cheese, pine nuts, and balsamic vinaigrette. This “thing” didn’t come on a small plate. It came in a huge, deep dish. If I could put a face on my appetite, let’s just say that it wore a huge smile. While I am not the greatest fan of goat cheese, when it is added to a salad as an accent, it makes everything splendid in the world.

Penne Arrabbiata

Penne Arrabbiata

My next order was penne arrabbiata. My pores exhale spices and I tend to love dishes that are heavy-handed with spices. While placing my order for the pasta dish, the chef asked me how spicy I wanted it, on a scale of 1 to 5. After he gave a jeering smile, I settled on a 4. He prepared the penne arrabbiata ANGRY the way that it should be, the way that I like it. The beauty of the dish was that this didn’t come from a bag, out of a can, or from some frozen tray. There was nothing fast about its preparation and the flavour, spicy and angry as it was, was a testament to Vapiano making sure not to fall into the category of “fast food.” Oh, and I used the homemade Italian bread to sop up the sauce. Bravo!!!

Cappuccino

Cappuccino

My New Year’s Absolution was to minimize the amount of sweets in my diet. So far, I have been off to a good start. However, I have willpower issues. I had a chat with my nutritionist, or rather a pleading session, about being able to treat myself every once in a while. She told me that instead of having a hunk of cake, fist size scoop of ice cream, eye-popping slice of ice cream, or slab of cheesecake, I could have an occasional scoop of sorbet, bowl of fruit, or a light cream dessert. Well, what should Vapiano have as a dessert option but a panna cota with strawberry sauce? It was light. It was creamy. It was dreamy. It was my allotment for the month of January. I ordered a cappuccino that I drank sans any sweetener. Either the coffee had been prepared with a quality bean or in a cappuccino machine that wasn’t caked with coffee mud. Wait. The coffee was Illy. Yep, for those who have gone to Intelligentia and are in the know about good coffee, Illy ranks up there on the “Never Disappointing” list. My appetite screamed, Molto bene!!!.

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

Panna Cota with Strawberry Sauce

If you have been to Food Life in Water Tower, you will have some familiarity with the method for ordering and obtaining your food. You receive a card, after which you then go to which ever station you wish to order — salads, pasta, beverages, and desserts. When you give your order, you then “register” your order at the station. Once the orders have been fulfilled, you then pick them up, return to your table, and commence to devouring all the good eats. When all is done, you pay at the close by giving the cashier your card, who then cashes you out. It’s that simple. There are no servers who come to your table, takes your order, and brings your food to you. The atmosphere is spacious and great for a gathering of friends, especially in the bar area. While many may think that a restaurant void of a server providing table service is the equivalent of fast food, the output from the kitchen is anything but fast. And with me having had angry pasta that tasted the way I remember it tasting in Florence, I think I shall have to return to see if it was just my hunger that made the dish taste so blooming tasty, or if it was indeed heaven buried on red sauce.

Vapiano on Urbanspoon

Thai Bowl Me Over

As much as I love taking personal holidays abroad, the one thing I hate the most about such vacations is WHEN THEY END. There is something incredibly wrong with being able to spend a great length of time away from work and work involved in holding friends’ hands and playing psychologist only to return to the very things you were thanking God for having escaped, even if only for a few weeks. No one ever said that life was fair. But I will be the first to say that returning to the great city of Chicago takes the edge off the disappointment a little.

Thai Bowl

I wasn’t off the plane that long before my stomach had started growling. Not that I didn’t indulge a fair amount of food while relaxing in business class on the flight coming back to Chicago, but my “Must Eat All the Time” switch got reset immediately and that meant jet lag and whatever else had to be put on hold until I dealt with my hunger. Needless to say, my mind was all over the place and I was not particularly in the mood for anything akin to fine dining or too fast that I would feel I had slipped back into indulging McDonald’s. So, I decided to make a quick dash to University Village, of all places, and go into extemporaneous mode after getting there. And where should I end up but at a hole in the wall by the name of Thai Bowl at 1049 W. Taylor Street.

Thai Iced Tea

Thai Iced Tea

If you are looking for ambience, forget it. If you want great service, albeit with conversational English, this is the spot. If you want some Thai food that will blast you off to Saturn, look no further. When I had arrived, the restaurant was empty. That meant having the pick of any seat in the restaurant and no sooner had I taken my seat, placed my order, pulled out the camera to prepare for taking photos, and taking the white balance to make sure the colour of the photos were true to life than a group of six giggling tweens came in and sat at the table IMMEDIATELY NEXT TO ME. I swear I am either cursed or emit something that draws people almost into my personal space any time I enter an empty establishment and take a seat.

Tom Yum Goong

Tom Yum Goong

By the time my Thai iced tea arrived at the table, I had tuned out the incessant banter related to random Twitter feeds, some other young woman – not at the table – who had on an outfit that was unbecoming of her, embarrassing photos on Instagram, the laughable Miley Cyrus renaissance and her father’s stamp of approval on it, and requests for “Take a photo of me.” The iced tea really hit the spot and was a great segue to the bowl of tom yum goong. Oh so spicy, shrimp swimming so calmly in a tasty broth accented with lemon, tomatoes, mushrooms, cilantro, and ginger, my sinuses that had been compromised thanks to the pressurized cabin known as an airplane were relieved.

Panang Gari Ghai

Panang Gari Ghai

After finishing the bowl of tom yum goong and waiting a few minutes, the greatest love of all came to the table. I had ordered a panang curry with chicken. Thinking that I would receive a bowl of panang and a cup of rice, I was a bit dismayed initially when there was only a giant bowl of what I thought was only panang that had arrived. I pulled the bowl closer and saw that the panang had been poured on top of the rice. No problem, I thought, as I began mixing the curry and rice. There were baby corn, mushrooms, and green peppers in it instead of the usual green and red peppers. It was the flavour that left me dreamy-eyed. OH MY GOD! Being all involved with the dish, I somehow managed to work the chopsticks so properly that I had finished all except for a smearing of gravy in the bowl. Although I can’t say that I remembered if this happened, or not, but I have a feeling I was transported to Bangkok briefly because the authenticity in that dish screamed “All that other stuff you have been eating is all wrong.”

Tom Kha Goong

Tom Kha Goong

I had to return so that I could sample something else. The tom yum goong and panang curry chicken were not enough. For my second visit, I tried something different just to mix things up a bit. I started with a bowl of tom kha goong. This was such a drool-worthy bowl of soup, unlike what I have had at many Thai restaurants. Instead of seeming to have only a coconut milk base, there was the necessary hint of curry that made it that more appetizing. The mushrooms that burst with every bite, the fresh tomatoes that didn’t taste like they had been grown prematurely, the cilantro that you can never go wrong with in any dish, and the few morsels of shrimp created a recipe that makes for a fantastic year-round soup. I rounded out my meal with a bowl of basil chicken. Although not as spicy as I have had at other Thai restaurants, it still rang with flavour. Not wanting it to end, I saved some to take home with me so that I could continue my Thai happiness later, like around the middle of the night when I sleepwalk to the kitchen to raid the refrigerator.

Basil Chicken

Basil Chicken

The prices, I guess you could say, are comparable to what you find at other Thai restaurants. Where I think Thai Bowl may be cheating themselves is with the prices because the quality and flavours remove them from being “just another Thai restaurant.” It is clear that Thai Bowl is a favourite among the students at neighbouring University of Illinois Circle Centre and residents in the nearby area because there was a constant flow of them coming to get take-away orders. I understand fully. Logan Square may not be in the immediate vicinity, but for any food that bowls me over like Thai Bowl did, the return trips are worthwhile.

Thai Bowl on Urbanspoon Thai Bowl on Foodio54

Sunset in Negril, I’m in Chicago

De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine

When I turned 40, some friends had taken me to an Afghani restaurant for my birthday dinner. I had been to the Afghani restaurant — Kabul House — for the very first blog post to Chicago Alphabet Soup and I was a few notches past anxious for returning. The food was something delicious and with it having been the first time ever indulging any Afghani cuisine, it was tastefully exotic. Having the dinner celebration at the restaurant and loving the dining experience as much as I did the first visit, I had made plans to return for a few future excursions. Much to my disappointment, the restaurant had closed its doors. While Chicago and the neighbouring suburbs may have Afghani communities, there were no other dining establishments to showcase their food talents. Recently I discovered that the restaurant had a new location in the small downtown section of Skokie, Illinois. And just a block away was another gem that I never would have thought would dot the landscape of Skokie — De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine at 4901 Oakton Street. Skokie is not known for having a Caribbean community, so I was fascinated to find something reflective of my culture.

Jamaican Beef Pattie

Jamaican Beef Pattie

The inside of De-Jred is spacious, with plenty of tables and booths. Upon entering, find a seat and prepare yourself for some authentic food from the island of Jamaica. I arrived just as the doors had opened, so I had my pick of seats. Knowing that I was going to capture impressions of what I was going to eat, I sat near the window for natural light to my photographs. The server approached with menu, a hearty welcome, and I had a few minutes to see what was on the bill of fare. It took very little time, as I saw something I was accustomed to eating as a kid. After placing my order and briefly talking with the owner/manager/cook about Jamaica, Toronto, and where there is a concentration of other Jamaicans in Chicago and surrounding suburbs, it was time to feed the monster.

Kola Champagne

Kola Champagne

Rice and Peas

Rice and Peas

One should never go to a Jamaican restaurant and leave without ordering a beef pattie. Actually, it is mandatory that you order a beef pattie unless you are a vegetarian. Talk about true Jamaican representation. I have had Jamaican beef patties at countless Jamaican restaurants and walk-up counters, most of which had a hint of beef filling and a lot of air between the crusts. At De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine, the patties are stuffed with beef filling and spicy the way I like them. They were so much like what I remember from Jamaica proper and the cast of Jamaican restaurants in Toronto to the point that I ordered some for take-away.

Callaloo

Callaloo

Being that I was in the mood for something reminiscent of my younger days, I had saltfish and ackee. Although you can eat it at any time of the day, it was a breakfast staple that made pancakes, waffles, scrambled eggs, and that other Stepford fare distasteful. There were even a few bones in the saltfish. With the saltfish and ackee, there were plantains and some steamed cabbage with carrots. I was a rather happy man after the first scoop of everything. And when I got a scoop of the rice and peas, I had mentally gone to Sheffield, Jamaica, and was sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table handling business and washing it all down with some june plum juice. Well, I didn’t have any june plum juice. I had Kola Champagne instead, and that still was a big hit. Also, with the saltfish and ackee dish I had callaloo. In American-speak, think greens. Accented with stewed tomatoes and seasoned just right, I made them vanish, the food magician that I am. What would have really shot me to the moon would have been if I had some fried bammy with the meal. I would have stepped outside, counted from ten to one, and skyrocketed straight out into space.

Saltfish and Ackee, Cabbage and Carrots

Saltfish and Ackee, Cabbage and Carrots

Had I not been in a reflective mood about my fortieth birthday, I never would have searched to see if Kabul House had a resurgence. It was fortunate that I was thinking of the Afghani restaurant because having discovered its new location, I also found out that there was a Jamaican restaurant within walking distance of it. De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine may be one of those spots that you pass without noticing it. But if you are in the area and your nose detects the smell of something from that beautiful island in the Atlantic Ocean, open the doors to some of the best Jamaican food in the Chicago area. Be prepared for a dish or two of all the good things.

De-Jred Fine Jamaican Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Gino in the Sky With Food

Lulu's

Lulu’s

The Beatles may have made the song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” famous. The first phase of my birthday celebration had a case of “Gino in the Sky With Good Food.” I cannot even get around to saying that I would put that to any music, let alone script a full set of lyrics to sing to it. What I can say is that celebrating my birthday this year has been an absolute blast and as I can become drunk on food, there were a few moments of food bliss that had me in my mood for wanting to perform. It may be the stiff Brit in me that said, “Just revel in all the good food you’re eating this week. Don’t embarrass yourself, as you know you flush rather easily.

I had to go to Evanston to get a camera from a friend. I had let him borrow it so that he could photograph a pretty-pretty for a portfolio. While in the neighbourhood, a few other friends had told me that I should meet them at Lulu’s. At 804 Davis Street in the middle of downtown Evanston, we got a table and was ready for action.

Ginger Ale Lemonade

Ginger Ale Lemonade

Lulu’s is one of those restaurants that presents itself as an Asian-fusion eatery. You peruse the menu and start to think that perhaps it falls more in line with Pan-Asian. There is also the mention of dim sum, so one could think that maybe there is all Chinese fare. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s food. I am all for cultural blending, but please let the culinary part of that marriage not suffer. Lulu’s obliged by not being an agent of “horror” dining.

I started with a ginger ale lemonade. From the menu, it looked like a drink I would be okay with. The server said that it was intense and she accentuated the word “intense” with a pithy growl. There was no way I was going to turn down something that brings about that much expression. After the first sip, I understood why. Wow! You could taste the ginger. I’m not talking the fizzy, bubbly stuff that makes you belch when you turn up a can of Schwepp’s ginger ale. A blend of ginger ale and lemonade sounds almost “too experimental,” but it works incredibly well as a mixed drink here. There is no alcohol in it and that was fine. However, this drink should be mandatory serving when the temperatures in Chicago reach the point of equatorial.

Curried Squash Soup

Curried Squash Soup

In the like manner that I exhibit when I go to restaurants now, I was in the mood for a degustation. The premise of the restaurant was dim sum, so there would be a little of something, not the American style dining where you practically beg for a pillow after dinner so that you can lie down. For my first course, I had the curried squash soup.

Mama’s little baby loves curry, curry
Mama’s little baby loves curry squash soup

Let me start by saying that anyone who has a complaint about Lulu’s, for any reason, should have a bowl of that soup and take a breath. Each sip, or slurp as it concerned me, brought about the dumb smile I wear when I’m experiencing food rapture. You could taste a hint of the curry without feeling as though the chef had poured a tablespoon of it on your tongue. It may have been cinnamon, allspice, or nutmeg that made the whole bowl burst with flavour. One thing I will say is that none of it was disappointing. None of it, I say.

Potato Croquettes

Potato Croquettes

When my second course came, which were four potato croquettes, I was feeling a bit excited by the third bite. I remembered having potatoes smothered in melted cheddar cheese at a Spanish tapas restaurant several years ago. That was actually the first time I really did have a cigarette after dinner. If it weren’t so frosty this evening and if I were indeed a smoker, I would have paused for a moment to go outside and puff away on a Marlboro. Not drowned in cheddar cheese, but rather topped with a spicy mayonnaise, I simply could not force myself to take itsy-bitsy bites and be okay with it. Partaking of those potato croquettes was nothing more than an experiment in trying to maintain your composure. I moaned out loud and then covered it up by coughing. Yes, I need therapy; I know that. But you don’t understand. Potatoes are supposed to be bland, salted at most. Those croquettes were wicked delicious.

Coconut Shrimp and Cole Slaw

Coconut Shrimp and Cole Slaw

A few months ago, I was visiting a friend who let me bake a cake in her kitchen. Well, the cake was for her anyway. Anyway, she ordered delivery from Lulu’s. One of the dishes that I had requested was coconut shrimp because I wanted to be in a tropical mood to take my mind off the fact that snow and sleet were falling fast outside. I was nonplussed, disappointed, horrified, petrified, and morbidly bitter. Okay, so that is a bit exaggerated, but I was almost in tears because the delivery was a mess. Fast forward to my latest in-house dining experience and there sitting before me is a plate of coconut shrimp and a dollop of cole slaw. Note to readers: Do not get the coconut shrimp as delivery. Get a table and order it for in-house dining. You will shoot straight to the moon. The coconut shrimp were plump, exploding with flavour. The batter was nothing like the saccharine B-chef gotcha that I had as a delivery item. It was all about joy on a plate. I was so in love.

Wonton Wonton Sundae

Wonton Wonton Sundae

This was a pre-celebratory birthday dinner for me, which meant that there would be dessert. I am well past the age of being okay with someone singing “Happy Birthday” to me at a restaurant because it always smacks of a free dessert after the meal. Again, I get embarrassed very easily and part of that is because my parents were not advocates of free meals, soup kitchen mentality as Ma Williams called it. I must admit that I can be selective if I think the free meal is worthy and I have indulged some without my conscience beating me up over it. As to the pre-birthday dessert at Lulu’s, an Instagram photo I posted to my Facebook wall sent one of my friends into a tailspin. Three fist-sized scoops of ice cream — vanilla, coconut, and banana chocolate chip — sat atop a fried wonton that had been coated with sugar and cinnamon. Another large fried wonton doctored up like the one under the ice cream towered on the plate. All of it was drizzled with chocolate, caramel, and confectioner’s sugar, and my friend was out in orbit. The people at the table across from where we were sitting told me to stop heaving such heavy sighs. When I told them to get their own, it was our turn to tell them to keep it quiet. Oh my God!!!

Lulu’s is a quaint little restaurant and seems to fill up rapidly, especially immediately after work. The service can be slightly off-putting, as you could find yourself waiting a while before any of the servers get untangled from running rampant through the restaurant. When a server does approach your table, you get an attentive member of the wait staff. If it is a rather busy evening, it may be a good idea to be concise with your order. The scene in “When Harry Met Sally” may be hilarious when watching that movie, but applying that technique of complexity to your ordering at Lulu’s could result in a botched order and you’re then penning an unsavoury review on Yelp. But if you are like me, you will get your Pan-Asian/fusion/dim sum/élan and everything will be quite okay in the land. Hmm. I think I need to return for the third phase of my month-long birthday celebration. Lulu’s now!!!

Lulu's on Urbanspoon

Bravo and Encore

Basil Leaf Cafe

One early evening during a summer day in 2012, I had the opportunity to go to a restaurant that was hosting a wine and food pairing. Being perhaps one of the individuals, if not the only one, who was not a sommelier, I thought that the event would be a bit out of my league. And then the food came to the table. Yes, the wine was splendid. However, the food was a major highlight for me and one that stayed with me since that participation in the wine and food pairing. With work gobbling up a great deal of my time and then my high school sweetheart and me taking an extended vacation to Calgary, Montreal, and Lisbon, scheduling a return to the restaurant of my culinary dreams had faded. A new year began in 2013 and I had finally entered a note in my cell phone to make a reservation for a dinner at Basil Leaf Cafe at 2465 N. Clark Street. It would be my luck that the cell phone went to sleep permanently on me and January was speeding by fast. There was no way that I was going to find myself well into 2013 before actually returning to the restaurant.

Olive Oil and BreadWith the New Year I had decided that I would focus on degustations more during my dining excursions. Too often I find myself scrambling to eat my appetizer and entrée before they are cold because at many restaurants both come to the table simultaneously. That is very much an epidemic at American style restaurants because there appears to be a need to rush patrons. Since Basil Leaf Cafe was the first restaurant that I was blogging for 2013, there was no better way to start my newfound appreciation of degustations than the present. A most inviting welcome on entry and my pick of seats because I had arrived before the dinner crowd, I handed the menu to my server, told her what I liked, and told her to surprise me. As a complimentary l’amuse, there was warm, homemade bread served with an olive oil that had various Italian herbs and spices in it. I would normally add Parmesan cheese and pepper, but that would have been a bit evil considering how flavourful the bread and olive oil were together. Oh, if I may add, bread is a source of weakness for me. I can’t deny it. I can’t refuse it. And if it is as good as what I had at Basil Leaf Cafe, then I tend to indulge to excess without any additional thought. And a note to myself is to find out the recipe for the olive oil so that I can try my hand at it at home.

Butternut Squash Soup

The first course to the table was a butternut squash soup. Let me start by saying that I have had my share of butternut squash soup and have loved it. This was the first time I had the soup and the first sip gave me pause. It was absolute heaven. I had a few more sips and then declared with certainty that I had just tasted the best butternut squash soup ever. There was no aftertaste. And the hint of cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg or whatever spice was added left me with a rather wide smile. I guess my server thought that I was making up a story when I said that it was the best butternut squash soup that I had ever eaten. There was no lie and because I had to maintain decorum, I did not take any of the homemade bread and go around the edges and bottom of the bowl. Only the first course and it was evident that the rest of the meal was going to be progressively better.

Mixed Berry Salad

And then there was a mixed berry salad that came to the table for the second course. I had told the server that I was not a fan of nuts and not because of any allergies. The texture and taste do nothing to assist my appetite. The salad was one that usually comes with walnuts. However, they were omitted. Having been to restaurants where my mentioning of not liking nuts was treated as an omission and I had to pick around the nuts to keep from making my whole dining experience unsavoury, the fact that my server had explained that walnuts are usually an ingredient in the salad and they were left out at my request, that made each bite all the more worthy. The mark of an outstanding wait staff is when they listen to the customers. Raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and blueberries sat atop lettuce, drizzled with a balsamic vinaigrette, and topped with crumbled gorgonzola cheese. The only other times I have had any kind of fruit in my salad were when I had apricot salads at one of my favourite Algerian restaurants. Berries on salad always looked a bit much, albeit quite appetizing. However, having the mixed berry salad and seeing that I had left only a smear of the vinaigrette afterwards was proof that it was not only visually stunning but it was incredible to the palate.

Linguine and SeafoodI was going to be daring initially and try two entrées — a vegetarian dish and a seafood dish. After being warned that the portions were large, I opted instead for the seafood platter. The third course was a seafood linguine. Plump shrimp, fresh salmon, well-seasoned mussels, tender scallops, and delectable clams rested on a bed of linguine and topped with a red sauce before I began working on the entrée. The pescatarian in me yelled, “Bravo!” and enjoyed the whole dish leisurely without a care in the world. Perhaps if I had a glass of wine to go with it, say a Merlot or a Malbec, I would have had a Food Network composition. But the dish was perfect with the glass of orange juice. One thing that I really liked most about the seafood linguine was that it had a spicy kick to it without me requiring glasses of water. And the seafood was nothing akin to the nibble size morsels that you find in most Italian seafood dishes. Not only was the portion of the entrée large but the seafood was not lacking in quantity and quality of freshness. I kept screaming, “Bravo.” Of course, it was to myself, though.

CappuccinoAfter the bread and olive oil, soup, salad, and seafood linguine, I required a bit of rest before entertaining a coffee and dolce. In keeping with letting everything be a surprise, I deferred to my server for the sweet. Whenever I go to an Italian restaurant, I always choose espresso or cappuccino. It probably would have been wiser for me to have ordered an espresso so that I could have avoided fighting sleep after such a wonderful meal. Instead, I had a cappuccino and my server brought an apple tartlet with a dollop of vanilla ice cream to the table. One bite and I could have hit a tenor aria to have brought the restaurant to its feet for a standing ovation. It was clear that the dessert was not something you find in the frozen section at the local market. No, there was no syrupy compost drowning chunks of overcooked apples. There was flaky crust enveloping thin, tart apples that had been cooked in their own juices. If it were not for the ice cream accompanying the apple tart, I would have dragged my dessert feast for a full hour. Being cognizant of the ice cream melting, I savoured the dessert and the cappuccino slowly and to completion. And let me just say that I did not need to add any sweetener to the cappuccino. The mark of a splendid cup of coffee is not having to add extra sweeteners to it to make it palatable. When you can enjoy your coffee the way I enjoyed the cappuccino at Basil Leaf Cafe, then you have had your coffee proper.

Apple Tartlet with Ice Cream

One thing I have not considered was coming up with a Top 10 list of restaurants in Chicago. What I can say with certainty is that as of me penning this blog entry, Basil Leaf Cafe holds the number 1 spot. That is a bold statement. Yes, others may scream that I am being unfair and that I need to come to their restaurants. Believe me when I say that as long as I am in Chicago, I will find my way to your dining haven. One thing to note is that when service, high quality of cuisine, and price come together to form an inviting request for a return, how can you possibly deny a bravo and an encore? You simply can’t. Only on a few occasions have I chosen to let my server make my dinner choices for me based on my likes and dislikes. What I experienced at Basil Leaf Cafe was a winning game of cuisine roulette. I was impressed thoroughly during the wine and food pairing at the restaurant that one summer evening in 2012. I was even more impressed during my second visit. I shall indeed return for an encore. I highly recommend that you visit Basil Leaf Cafe and see for yourself.